"I was not expected to grow up to be a biologist. I was supposed to study Home Ec. and marry a doctor. My mom is still not quite over it…you'd think she would be," Linda Wiener says.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where Wiener worked as a curator. She veered away from her strict education and started noticing quirky patterns in insects and animals.
"The kind of thinking that is done in an academic setting is very narrow," the PhD in entomology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison says. "I had many questions that nobody in the department of biology [was] interested in. They were larger philosophical questions that made them uncomfortable."
She's standing in her lived-in home office, next to a bookcase chock-full of titles like The Moth Book, Insectopedia and Adventure Among Ants—which she calls "a page-turner." On the opposite side of the room is her sturdy oak desk, which is covered with pins, museum wax and other accoutrements she uses for mounting things onto shadow boxes—not bugs, as one might expect, but colorful buttons, another one of her passions.
"I don't really want to capture and keep dead insects, [but] I'm a nerd, so I like having little things and looking at them carefully and sorting them in categories," she says.
Myriad magnifying glasses are her way of being prepared: "You never know when you're going to need one," says Wiener, who, living up to her nickname "the bug lady," is wearing a praying mantis-shaped brooch.
With decades of observation under her belt, Wiener decided to abandon academic science and become a tutor at St. John's College. "It seemed to me that what was going on in the world out there was bigger than the scientific accounts of it," she says.
Her finding: that animals can express themselves artistically.
"The key seems to be not just noticing a behavior, but thinking, 'Oh, maybe they really are trying to—you know?—do art for pleasure,'" she says. "Maybe it's not an activity they're doing for survival or to attract a mate."
Her unorthodox observations make her somewhat of an outcast in the scientific realm, but driven by her passion for creepy crawlers, she perseveres.
"I've been outside of that community for a long time. I don't know of anybody in an academic institution that really—as a biologist anyway—looks at things quite the way I do."
Excited to share her findings, Wiener has prepared a lecture that she'll present this week, along with documented instances of this animalistic, artistic conduct.
"One example I'll be using is a concert of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that was given by the Santa Fe Community Orchestra at the opera house, where some house finches came and perched by the orchestra and joined in with the music," she shares. "It was done in a way that seemed like they were interacting with the music as musicians."
Inspired by her subjects, Wiener herself has tapped into her artistic side and will present three original works in this year's AHA Festival. One is a Plexiglas-encased representation of a harvester ant colony titled "Treasure Ant Farm," jewels and all.
"This is a first for me," she says, adding that, for her, these pieces are a physical extension of her research. "I've used this as a sort of meditation on my project of artistic expression in nature."
Wiener's ultimate goal, she says, is to open people's eyes.
“I’m just trying to encourage everybody to take a look at the animals that are all around them—maybe their dog, maybe a bird in the backyard—and have a larger context for looking at it, and to look more carefully, become better observers.”